Polite Lepers and the Power of Choosing Happiness

One of my favorite Bible stories in Sunday School when I was a child was the ten lepers who call out to Jesus to have mercy on them; He tells them to go to the Temple to show the priests they were healed and off they run, eager to make the proper sacrifices so that they could rejoin their families and get their lives back. But one of them turns around and runs back to Jesus to say thank you. I can still remember that line of men strung out across the flannelgraph board, their colorful robes flapping around their legs, and that one figure kneeling at the feet of Jesus, his hands and face turned upwards in worship. The story definitely has a strong visual appeal, and it probably resonates with children everywhere who are being taught polite manners: even Jesus thinks it is important that people say thank you!

Now that I am older, other aspects of the story intrigue me though, like the fact that all were healed, regardless of whether they said thanks or not. God’s mercy was lavish and free…no strings attached. And the fact that the man who came back was a foreigner is striking, because it is probably the real reason for his gratitude. The Jews were used to being God’s special people, and it made sense to them, both that God would heal them and that the Temple priest was the one who would declare them clean. The Samaritan though, was fully aware of his own unworthiness to be touched by God, and knew that he was not welcome to offer his gifts of thankfulness in the Temple. He saw clearly that the healing was at Jesus’ command, and returned to give thanks where it was due; it was his faith that Jesus was commending. All ten were healed of their skin condition, but one came back to kneel at Jesus’ feet, and had his heart healed as well. Obviously, the lesson for us is much larger than having nice manners.

I used to have this crazy poster on my fridge that I printed out, mostly because I needed to think about the words every day, in order to wrap my brain around them: “Everyone gets to decide how happy they want to be…because everyone gets to decide how grateful they are willing to be.” (Ann VosKamp)”

Everyone gets to decide how happy they want to be? Even the lepers and the lonely?…. all the ones that get stuck in situations beyond their control? And what if there is no family to run home to, and the healing doesn’t come? That’s the hard ceiling on free will, finding out that in so many ways you are not actually free, and have no choices in the matter. And who in this life gets to decide on a quantity of happiness, as if they were window shopping in a mall? Isn’t everyone allotted some random measure of happiness in this life, and some people are just more blessed than others? There is an inequity of circumstances that we all have learned to put up with, ever since we were toddlers and discovered the painful truth that we can’t always have what someone else has. And right about that same time we laid the responsibility of our happiness on the shoulders of circumstance, let it roll on the unpredictable winds of fortune. I see how we often live on that thin knife-edge– balanced between hope that things will go our way, and fear that everything will crash down around our ears; can see how we lean toward worry or toward control, trying to manage it all. And some of us just give up on the trying, and do whatever we can to pretend everything is going to work out fine. The world we live in makes no sense of the first part of that sentence.

But the truth of the second part skewers through the uncertainty of that first bit, anchoring it firmly. “Everyone gets to decide how happy they want to be… because everyone gets to decide how grateful they are willing to be.” (Ann VosKamp) And I know this spiritual sister is speaking truth, even though my heart still struggles at times to put it into practice. Because gratitude is precisely what we are free to choose– or not– in response to the circumstances we are given, and the way we respond shows what is in our hearts toward the Giver.

In his letters to the early churches, Paul writes it over and over again, rings out the insistent call: “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice.” (Philippians 4:4) He hands out this command boldly, as the standard for believers, regardless of their circumstances. And given the circumstances of his own life, we can surmise that Paul was no rosy idealist about life; he had no illusions about how hard it could be to hold onto hope or contentment or joy. His answer to the hurting, to the lonely, to the failing and the fallen is the same: Rejoice in the One who loves you and will never leave you.

Just before the story of the lepers, Jesus’ followers ask Him how to increase their faith. I wonder if the story of the thankful man surprised them at all. The connection between faith and thanksgiving is probably not one that we would make on our own, yet it runs over and over through the Scriptures: thankfulness is an act of obedience and faith, the humble offering of a heart that recognizes its Maker and Healer. And it is thankfulness that enables us to persevere in faith through whatever comes. This Savior who answers our cries for mercy is the answer to all the hurts of this world, and because of His presence we can always rejoice, can always give thanks, no matter how hard our faith is tested.

But it’s a choice and we have to be willing to submit to what He has given this day, open our hands for what He supplies and be content there. Paul’s words stand firm: “We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed.” (2 Corinthians 4:8-9) The only certainty in this world is suffering; all else is Grace, and undeserved.

So maybe happiness is really up to me and I do get to decide, because while the circumstances are not in my control, my response to them is, and gratitude is always the best option. Choose to see Grace? Be willing to acknowledge the Giver’s goodness and provision in the midst of circumstances, and find happiness in His presence? I get to decide.

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“Whatever happens to me each day is my daily bread, provided I do not refuse to take it from Thy hand and to feed upon it.” (Francois de la Mothe Fenelon)

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“Be very careful, then, how you live—not as unwise but as wise, making the most of every opportunity, because the days are evil. Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the Lord’s will is….be filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another with psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit. Sing and make music from your heart to the Lord, always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Ephesians 5:15-17, 19-20)

When Blind Men See

We are all just beggars in a way, aren’t we? I mean, on the outside no one would know, because we look pretty much like everyone else. But on the inside, most of us are looking for something, holding up our cupped hands to those who pass by. Asking for love; asking for a listening ear; longing for security, for hope; begging for meaning and worth, for relationship, for belonging. Some days you feel more satisfied, depending on what you receive. Sometimes you just feel wrung out, impoverished, like the thin ribs of your spirit would be poking through your dirty rags if anyone actually had the eyes to see inside. And it shapes you, having to beg for a life. Pushes you into thinking and acting in ways you would rather not… but a woman has to survive in this world somehow.

And we look at the man-born-blind sitting along the road and feel sorry for him: marked by his disease, by his shame, cut off from others by his disability. They don’t even see him as a person any more. He is a fixture in the landscape, growing older and shabbier, and less noticed as the years go by. Maybe a warning to naughty children about the possible consequences of their behavior, and occasionally the subject of theological discussion as to whose guilt put him there– and somehow no one ever questions the assumption that he deserves his situation. But what about us? Were we also born to sit in the dirt and beg for our lives? Is that all we are?…all we deserve? Maybe the only difference between us and him is that the marks of his need were obvious and out in the open.  And maybe right there is the secret fear that fuels our desire to be pretty and polished, to win enough trophies to hide our neediness….we need to prove that we don’t deserve to be cast aside.

But when Jesus looks at the blind beggar, He doesn’t see hopeless or helpless. He doesn’t measure the man’s worth by his condition at all. Jesus tells his followers plainly, “This happened so that  the works of God might be displayed in him.” (John 9:3) Jesus looks at the forgotten man, and He sees past the unseeing eyes, right through to the core of who he is. Jesus sees a man created from the dust of this earth, formed by God’s creative power in his mother’s womb; Jesus sees potential, and opportunity for God to do something wonderful; Jesus touches those disease-damaged eyes with His own flesh, and tells the man simply to wash it all away, leave it behind and become someone new. He doesn’t need to beg any more.

Years later, a man named Paul experienced that power himself, how God can look at a man (who barely even knows he is a beggar on the inside), and open his eyes, give him a new life. Paul declared with confidence that “God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. (1 Corinthians 1:27) Because when Jesus opens your eyes to see His face, that shapes a person too. Turns a murderer into a preacher, and a scholar into a pioneer missionary. Takes a man who thought he was “God’s gift” to the world and renames him “small, humble”— the kind of guy who could say sincerely, “Most gladly, therefore, I will rather boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me.” (2 Corinthians 12:9) When you have Jesus, you can stop living hungry on scraps, because He calls you friend and brother, calls you to follow Him.

So this particular beggar, who has never done a thing with his life except sit useless and beg for scraps of other people’s lives, finds unexpected reserves of confidence to stand up to the public controversy that swirls around his healing– can even shame a court of educated religious men with his eloquence: “Now that is remarkable! You don’t know where he comes from, yet he opened my eyes….If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.” (John 9:30, 33) Ironic, isn’t it, that a man who never saw anything before can look at Jesus and see the Messiah, come to heal us all from our sin, while everyone else is so busy looking at what they can get on their own. Beggars, all of them.

And I wonder if that beggar-born-blind did have one thing going for him: at least he could admit what he did for a living– knew that he was damaged and needed a fix. We should all be so brave. That’s all he needed to have, really. Jesus took care of the rest.

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“Tell everyone who is discouraged, ‘Be strong and don’t be afraid! God is coming to your rescue….’ The blind will be able to see, and the deaf will hear. The lame will leap and dance, and those who cannot speak will shout for joy. Streams of water will flow through the desert; the burning sand will become a lake, and dry land will be filled with springs.” (Isaiah 35:4-7)

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“The walls you’re building to keep the hurt out, are the same walls that keep the healing from getting in.” (Ann VosKamp)

Simply Trusting

For all those things that are outside our circle of influence, let there be this word of encouragement today, that we can trust the One who holds everything in His hands. “The God Who lives forever is the Lord, the One Who made the ends of the earth. He will not become weak or tired. His understanding is too great for us to begin to know.” (Isaiah 40:28)

 He’s got this. You can rest in His love, “For the Lord your God is living among you. He is a mighty Savior. He will take delight in you with gladness. With His love, He will calm all your fears. He will rejoice over you with joyful songs.” (Zephaniah 3:17) Be still, and listen to Him singing.

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“If I believe in God, in a Being who made me, and fashioned me, and knows my wants and capacities and necessities, because He gave them to me, and who is perfectly good and loving, righteous, and perfectly wise and powerful– whatever my circumstances inward or outward may be, however thick the darkness which encompasses me– I yet can trust, yea, be assured, that all will be well, that He can draw light out of darkness, and make crooked things straight.” (Thomas Erskine)

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“And I will give you treasures hidden in the darkness–secret riches. I will do this so you may know that I am the LORD, the God of Israel, the One who calls you by name.” (Isaiah 45:3)

What Elephant?

There’s a fundamental truth in the center of everything. It’s amazing how we can build a whole life blatantly ignoring the bulk of it– and yet we will all run up against it like a brick wall, at some point. The simple fact is that there are a great many things on this earth that we cannot control.

And of course we know that in our heads, and right away we think of the things we wish we could fix in our lives, past and present.  We might even list any number of large disastrous events that we would  collectively entitle “acts of God.” Of course, the implication is that these things ought to have been prevented altogether (and we would certainly have done so if we were in charge)…but no one stepped up, and at least we know Who is to blame. So much hurt in this big world.

So we spend enormous amounts of energy on controlling everything we can, and a great many things we can’t, but wish we could. Because maybe it’s just a matter of finding the right cure, or the right balance, or the right person to help. We can call it hope and strength and courage and determination– all the things we admire in a human being– and surely one of these days, if we work hard enough together, we will succeed where others have failed. Being proactive in the Everyday makes me feel stronger, more confident, like I am making a difference in all the chaos; like I  am carving out a safe place for myself and my family;  As long as the people I care about are happy and things are running smoothly at home and work and school, it seems proof positive that what I am doing is working, right?

I wonder more and more if all our trying isn’t just a smokescreen of capability, tangling a nest of self-deception and self-distraction until we can forget about that fundamental monstrosity in our midst. Because controlling the world is a mighty big task, and just because you’ve managed to decorate it nicely, doesn’t mean the elephant in the room has disappeared…. nor does it mean you are free of it.  During the day maybe you can actually come to believe that you are holding it all together, but in the middle of the night, when it’s just you in the dark?….Well, we all know the issues that keep us heart-poundingly awake at night.

Sometimes the terrible things in life turn out to be unexpected gifts; they can become the lenses on that enormous reality of impotence, like opening your eyes to what has been there all along. When the things you dread come crashing in hard and fast, and all you can do is cry out for help, you are finally in a place to learn the most important truth of all.

Because the truth is, no matter how intensely I feel about things, it doesn’t give me any more actual ability to control them. There are certain things God has given me to do, and a great many He has not put within my circle of influence, and that is okay. Because the opposite of control isn’t chaos. The opposite of control is trust. And just because you feel like circumstances are out of control doesn’t mean they are. I really wish I could hear Jesus’ tone of voice when He says “Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to your life? Since you cannot do this very little thing, why do you worry about the rest?” (Luke 12:25) When I stop trying to fix everything, and start trusting the One whose job it is, it’s amazing how the impossible situations begin shrinking next to the infinite weight of glory that is His presence; how knots in relationships untangle in the light of His truth; how bent bodies and broken hearts find rest and healing in His touch.

It is remarkably freeing to name the elephant in the room…to see it there and admit that there are relatively few things in this world over which I have influence, and that is just fine with me. I have enough to keep me busy just managing my own internal affairs.

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“Why do you say…’My way is hidden from the Lord; my cause is disregarded by my God’? Do you not know? Have you not heard? The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He will not grow tired or weary, and His understanding no one can fathom. (Isaiah 40:27-28)

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“There are always arms under you carrying you, there are always hands carved with your name holding yours, there is always a waiting embrace Who is your safe place. You will never be abandoned — because He will never abandon you, Love will never abandon you, Hope will never abandon you, Grace will never abandon you.” (Ann VosKamp)

Filling up Our Hungry Hearts

Here in the Autumn weeks when the trees are dropping leaves and the days are growing shorter, we return to old Truths around the table. And we are carrying new stories to tell, as if that changes everything, but isn’t it odd how we need to keep learning the same lessons over and over again? Somehow, we feel the need to keep holding up our changing circumstances for examination. Maybe we need to know for sure that the light of God’s truth is still shining there, no matter how much the jagged pieces of this broken world shift and turn. Maybe these hearts are just wounded enough that we are looking to belong somewhere safe. Whatever the reason, it is clear that we need to keep setting God’s promises in the center of everything, keep our eyes focused on who He is and what He says about life, so that our changing seasons have an anchoring point around which to spin.

It’s not really a matter of testing God’s faithfulness, because we know “His compassions never fail. They are new every morning.” (Lamentations 3:22-23). Every one of us would echo the Musician-King’s song: “Your love, Lord, reaches to the heavens, your faithfulness to the skies.” (Psalm 36:5) No, it’s our own hearts that need tested, need to ask continually, “Can I trust you in this?” like children wanting fresh assurance every night that there are no monsters under the bed and someone bigger will be within earshot.

But children grow up and forget the fear of monsters under the bed eventually, and there comes a time for hearts to grow up too. Worry doesn’t make us human, nor does it make us good. It just makes us tired and unhappy. I remember a song my grandma used to sing: “O soul, are you weary and troubled? No light in the darkness you see? There’s light for a look at the Savior, and life more abundant and free. Turn your eyes upon Jesus. Look full in His wonderful face, and the things of earth will grow strangely dim, in the light of His glory and grace.” (Helen Lemmel) And the more we look at Him with the innocent trust of a child, in every change of life, the more we are convinced of the deep truth that we are loved and we are safe in His care. In the wilderness season we are going through. In the great loss we are feeling. In the inadequacy that gnaws us for the hard things ahead. Jesus is right there, and He is patiently listening to our questions about life, and cries about today’s troubles. He keeps on reassuring us that the things we fear have no power over us any more, and He will remain by our side no matter what. And at some point we need to grasp onto the solid truth of that, leave fear and insecurity behind and grow up into Him who came to rescue us. For “He Himself bore our sins in His body on the tree, so that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. ‘By His stripes you are healed.'” (1 Peter 2:24)

Lord, let our broken hearts be healed in Your clear unchanging Light, that we may grow up in all things and rest in Your great promises.

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“Yes, my soul, find rest in God; my hope comes from Him. Truly He is my rock and my salvation; He is my fortress, I will not be shaken..”(Psalm 62:5-6)

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“It is possible, I dare to say, for those who will indeed draw on their Lord’s power for deliverance and victory, to live a life in which His promises are taken as they stand, and found to be true. It is possible to cast every care on Him, daily, and to be at peace amidst the pressure. It is possible to see the will of God in everything, and to find it…no longer a sigh, but a song….” (Handley Moule)

 

A Light in the Storm

I’ve sailed on the Sea of Galilee, in a big wooden boat. Only once, but it’s not the kind of thing you forget. I saw the boats on the shore and the thick heavy rope nets that the men still use in that deep blue water, heard the stories about how a storm gale can whip up and sweep down from the mountains suddenly, catching fishermen unawares. It brought the Bible stories to life, and I could easily imagine Peter and Andrew, James and John living and working in that sea basin, their lives intertwined with the natural forces around them. So when I read the story of the storm at night, I can fully sympathize with their fear and cries for help. And even their astonishment at Jesus’ power.

“Lord, save us! We’re going to drown!” (Matthew 8:25) was no hysterical reaction or irrational worry. It was based on the facts of their situation, the creaking timbers that shuddered and pitched beneath them, the dark skies above them, water pouring into the boat as it rolled beneath them…every sense they had was on high alert in a dangerous situation. They all knew men and boats that had been lost to those storms. And I am sure they had already done everything they knew to do, every trick they had up a seasoned fisherman’s sleeve, to no avail against the forces of nature. All they had to hold onto was hope in the Rabbi, who lay there taking a nap while the water sloshed up around him. Sleeping? At a time like this? Of course, He must have been exhausted after a long day of healing the crowds that needed Him. But His reaction to the storm was so markedly different from the rest of the men, and at first I shrug it off, because it’s easy to be calm if you know you have the power to fix something, and the helpless fishermen just need to hang in there, and they will soon be out of danger.

And then I realize two things back-to-back, and it’s like spotlights turning on in my head: the men must know He can do something too, otherwise they would not be scolding Jesus for sleeping when they needed help….and Jesus suggested this trip knowing full well that a storm would catch them on the way. Suddenly I am not quite so comfortable with the familiar Sunday School story of how Jesus can command the wind and the waves.

Because I am like the fishermen, caught in the wind and waves of many different situations, and all I have is the evidence of my senses, the life skills I have learned, the perspectives I have gained from experience– these are the tools I have to navigate the seas of my life. Sometimes I can go to bed at night thinking it was a day’s good work, and some nights I can barely sleep for the gnawing of anxiety and wondering where to go from here. And pressing on to learn more, do better, surrounding myself with the support of family and friends gives me a sense of doing what I can, encourages me that it’s all going to work out and I can persevere. Adding faith into the mix helps keeps the deep and the dark at bay, at least in the forefront of my thoughts. It’s a relief to know the Maker of Heaven and Earth personally, to be able to ask Him for help…and still, like the disciples, it is peace that I so often lack, even with Jesus by my side.

But there’s Jesus in the story, with the same human senses and skills and brain at His disposal, and it’s like He doesn’t even see the storm as a threat (or at least considers it not worth an uproar). He is utterly at peace in that boat, and when He speaks to the fishermen, it is not to impart any new knowledge, but to question their faith: “Why are you so afraid? Do you still have no faith?” (Mark 4:40) We miss the point entirely if we write it off as Jesus’ knowing more than we do in the storm. The implication is glaring, that what you know should inform your reactions. If you know God’s power over your world, and believe that He is with you and for you, then circumstances lose their power over you and you can rest peacefully. His reaction calls to mind the words of Isaiah the prophet: “You keep him in perfect peace whose mind is stayed on You, because he trusts in You. Trust in the Lord forever, for the Lord God is an everlasting rock.” (Isaiah 26:3-4) And suddenly this story isn’t just a nice encouragement about Jesus’ power to calm the storms of life– it’s commenting on my faith and how I react to storms.

Faith isn’t something to add into my skill set, as one more tool in my journey through life. Faith is a completely new perspective on the journey, a spiritual sense that sees past the evidence of my eyes and ears, and the data that informs my brain. Faith knows the presence and power of the Almighty One is more real than any storm, and therefore can rest in Him. It’s one of those huge truths that is maybe more sturdy and solid than I have been able to grasp before, a beam of light that urges me to leave behind shallow platitudes and plunge ahead into the depths of knowing Christ.

The Fishermen-turned-Disciples wonder to each other, “Who is this? Even the wind and the waves obey him!” (Mark 4:41) They are understandably terrified, but what is perhaps more disturbing to us is the realization that the trip through the night was Jesus’ idea in the first place, in full knowledge of the storm that was coming. I would much rather that His power protect me from storms, guide my boat through safe places and peaceful harbors. Because surely His control should prevent chaos in my life. And yet He urges the boat on into the storm, because it is more important that we see His power and glory than it is that we be comfortable and safe. Why not, since He is in perfect control of the circumstances we face? I wonder how many times I have looked at a situation and called it bad and stressful, and failed to even see Jesus standing over it in authority? The Musician-King’s songs testify over and over, “The Lord is my light and my salvation— whom shall I fear?….Though an army besiege me, my heart will not fear; though war break out against me, even then I will be confident.” (Psalm 27:1,3) Worshiping Him brings His peace to our hearts, no matter how severe the storm is.

Lord, open our eyes to see Your power over our storms, and grant us the faith to rest patiently in Your care, knowing You will bring us safely to the other side.

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When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and when you pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over you. When you walk through the fire, you will not be burned; the flames will not set you ablaze.” (Isaiah 43:2)

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“You hear me when I call;
You are my morning song.
Though darkness fills the night,
It cannot hide the light;
Whom shall I fear?
You crush the enemy
Underneath my feet;
You are my sword and shield,
Though troubles linger still; 
Whom shall I fear?
I know who goes before me;
I know who stands behind;
The God of angel armies
Is always by my side.”
(Whom Shall I Fear, Chris Tomlin)

 

Hope-Full

I’m not sure what I was thinking when I chose the word at the beginning of the year and wrote down Hope in curving letters on the page. But I can say that when I asked God what He wanted to do in my life this year, the answer came back quietly, persistently: Hope. It seemed like a good way to begin the year: new beginnings and bright horizons and all that, so I hung it up where I could see it, to remind me. I wasn’t sure exactly what it meant, but surely, we of all people should be people of hope, because of our God who can do all things.

I was most definitely not thinking that it would be the one word we would be needing most. Hope. When you are facing one impossible thing after another, and the gale-winds just won’t stop blowing, hope seems like a ridiculously flimsy flag to wave in the air. Yet there it hangs like a banner flying brave across my shelves, every time I walk into the room– a silent reminder and a promise. And somehow, as days turn into weeks, turn into the months of a year, Hope is being redefined into a most sturdy anchor for the soul. Because hope has nothing to do with what is going on around us, and everything to do with what is happening inside of us. And the promise is not that we will get what we are longing for, but that we will get Himself, and He will be enough.  In Jesus, God fulfills all His promises; He comes to us, and says over and over again, “Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid or terrified …for the Lord your God goes with you; he will never leave you nor forsake you.” (Deuteronomy 31:6)

Sometimes it is really hard to know what to hope for, especially when the future seems so uncertain and the world is going crazy all around you. But this I do know: about the time you stop hanging onto the good things you want God to do for you, and start hanging onto Him alone, as the One who is mighty to save, you begin to notice what He is doing deep in your heart. Instead of grasping at straws for your own way out of the mess you are in, so you can survive, you just start taking one step at a time in the simple knowledge that God is walking with you and you will be okay whatever happens.  Hope is looking at what is going on around you, and believing there is a whole lot more that you cannot see. Hope is acting on that faith in everyday relationships and everyday decisions, because you know God is good and He is accomplishing something worthwhile.  Hope isn’t afraid to lean on others, or to admit that sometimes life hurts unbearably– it simply refuses to give up under the load. Hope knows that “Those who live in the shelter of the Most High will find rest in the shadow of the Almighty.” (Psalm 91:1) And is this not following in the footsteps of our Savior, being willing to bear intolerable things with childlike trust in the Father’s plan?

The Musician-King didn’t believe in pretending to be all right when he was not; he was an honest shepherd who loved God with all his might, and poured out his soul in his songs to the Lord: “Out of the depths I cry to you, Lord…hear my voice. Let your ears be attentive to my cry for mercy….I wait for the Lord, my whole being waits, and in His word I put my hope…” (Psalm 130:1-2, 5) When you finally want the Giver more than anything He can give–then you have found a hope you can hold onto. A thousand years later, the Church-Planter agreed, and added his own triumphant proof to the matter: “And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us.” (Romans 5:5) This is the hope that God wants to give us– a certain-sure hope that reaches beyond the temporary happenings of this world and embraces the reality of the next. We have all the hope we need, because we have all of Him.

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“For the grace of God has appeared that offers salvation to all people. It teaches us to say “No” to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age,  while we wait for the blessed hope—the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ… (Titus 2:11-13)

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“Doesn’t matter what I feel
Doesn’t matter what I see
My hope will always be
In Your promises to me
Now I’m casting out all fear
For Your love has set me free
My hope will always be
In Your promises to me…
Nothing’s gonna stop the plans You’ve made
Nothing’s gonna take Your love away
You will always be more than enough for me.”
(Your Promises, Elevation Worship)

On Saying Yes to Difficult Things

We talk about acceptance of circumstances as if it were a polite invitation sent to the door, which you could consider, and to which you could give a thoughtful response. In reality, unlooked-for circumstances generally drop in like a pipe-bomb over your garden wall, blowing all your careful cultivation to bits. Any talk of acceptance then, becomes more a question of what you will do in the face of upheaval, and sometimes it feels like nothing more than surviving. But how you cope with both the bearable and the unbearable in life has life-changing consequences– it is shaping the very heart of you, whether you realize it or not.

Unfortunately, it’s usually a matter of trial and error, because in this world the uncertain and unexpected are going to crash in upon you again and again as you grow, and you will have to figure out what to do with those many things outside your circle of influence. Most of us struggle all our lives with acceptance of circumstances. Of what there is. Of what there is not. Of what may be. Of what has already been. I am pretty sure I still have a lot to learn on the subject, but I can at least look back and put words to what I’ve already tried and found wanting.

I know that acceptance is not the same as resignation, dull passivity to what cannot be escaped. You might be going through the motions on the outside, but inside your spirit will be crying out “in a dry and thirsty land where there is no water.” (Psalm 63:1) That way is a desert you could wander in for the rest of your journey, losing all sense of direction– losing hope. You can see the wilderness in a person’s eyes when she has given up to her circumstances.

Acceptance is not just a determination that rises to the occasion, a gritting of teeth resolved to do what must be done. There will always come a day when you cannot possibly be strong enough, good enough, smart enough to make it work. Self-sufficiency feels empowering and meaningful for awhile, but this world is enough to wear down the hardiest spirits, and when you run out of sheer will to live, how will you deal with the next thing then?

And acceptance is more than saying the right words and doing the right things on the outside. That way might feel like peace, seems like a path that will lead in the right direction. But you can cover up a pile of resentment and pain with a pretty-face mask; surely you know that the volcano will spew eventually, and the truth will out.

Since I have so far in life mostly succeeded in wrestling around with all the wrong ideas, these days I am trying to frame more positive words to describe what acceptance is. And I see how there is an acceptance that takes all circumstances as from the hands of a Creator who has every right to rule over what He has made, and every power to do it well. An acceptance that doubts neither the love nor the goodness of the One who does so, but looks upward with the innocent trust of a child. At some point you have to stop trying to figure out what you can do, and rest in Someone Else. Acceptance gives up the fight to be in charge, and bows to the Maker of heaven and earth…and it may be a surprising relief.

Not only does it set your soul at peace, to stop fighting everything, but it opens your heart and mind to new ways of doing things. Paul the Church Planter said it like this: “Don’t copy the behavior and customs of this world, but let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think. Then you will learn to know God’s will for you, which is good and pleasing and perfect.” (Romans 12:2) I am used to hearing the importance of the first part of that verse– of changing and being changed– and until recently the last part just kind of slid on by. But don’t miss that the end result of transformation is to finally understand and accept God’s will as your own. This is the Kingdom of God becoming real in me, when what He wants done, gets done, “on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10), and the only way that happens is by the power of the Holy Spirit working in me.

Acceptance of God’s plans means letting go of my personal declaration of independence and capability; it means relinquishing my very-patriotic rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, for the sake of following Christ, wherever He leads. Acceptance is not anything I can muster up on my own, which kind of explains all the wrestling with it. Acceptance comes with the Holy Spirit’s powerful presence and my surrender to Him. And then I begin to see God’s plan at work in my life, and can recognize it for what it is….good and just the right thing for me, regardless of whether the circumstances make sense to my head. “And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 4:7) I can hear His whispers of love, and sense His guiding hand through the situation. It’s like finding riches in a secret place.

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“Those who live in the shelter of the Most High will find rest in the shadow of the Almighty. This I declare about the Lord: He alone is my refuge, my place of safety; He is my God, and I trust Him.” (Psalm 91:1-2)

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“Thank You for the wilderness
Where I learned to thirst for Your presence
If I’d never known that place
How could I have known You are better?

Thank You for the lonely time
When I learned to live in the silence
As the other voices fade
I can hear You calling me, Jesus

And it’s worth it all just to know You more
You’ve done great things
Jesus, Your love never fails me
My soul will sing you have done great things

Thank You for the scars I bear
They declare that You are my healer
How could I have seen your strength
If You never showed me my weakness?

And it’s worth it all, just to know You more”
(Great Things, Elevation Worship)

 

The Hurricane of His Love

I remember my girl saying to me a long time ago, her face streaked with tears, that she wished God didn’t love her quite so much, because she was tired of all these lessons of growth. I grimaced in agreement. on the inside, because who hasn’t felt on occasion that following Jesus takes you to some really tough places? It is the nature of the clay to wish that the Potter would stop pounding and molding for awhile…just let you lie there in a peaceful immobile lump, doing whatever it is that clay does. The fallacy of course, is in thinking that we would be happier on our own, doing what we want, instead of what the King wants….and isn’t that exactly the false thinking that got Adam and Eve into this whole mess in the Beginning? It’s just as foolish as thinking that if we obey God and do all the right things, life will be simple and happy as a result. We just can’t seem to stop trying to figure out how to make life easier, better, more satisfying for ourselves without having to trust God’s plans for us. Guess it depends what you are looking for in the way of goodness.

CS Lewis pointed out: “It would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak.”  While we are planting our feet firmly in the soil and looking for the things that make life here better, the Musician-King David writes simply,“The Lord is my shepherd, I lack nothing. He makes me lie down in green pastures, He leads me beside quiet waters, He refreshes my soul.” (Psalm 23:1-3a) David’s shepherding heart understood God’s sacrificial love for His sheep. He saw the faithfulness that is new every morning and isn’t afraid to do the hard things. He tasted for himself that the green grass of this world only goes so far, and what the king-who-has-everything needs most is to stand in the presence of God’s wild goodness; to live safe under the wings of the Almighty; to be washed clean in God’s ocean depths of forgiveness. We all need to come to the same conclusion about our heart’s desire, one way or another, if we are going to find peace with the unstoppable hurricane force of God’s love. One of King David’s musicians wrote his own confession this way: “Whom have I in heaven but you? And earth has nothing I desire besides you. My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.” (Psalm 73:25-26) 

And if being in His care feels like we are ” bending beneath the weight of His wind and mercy” at times, we have His promise that we will make it through. “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and when you pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over you. When you walk through the fire, you will not be burned; the flames will not set you ablaze.” (Isaiah 43:2) Life hurts for everyone, because this earth is damaged in a million cruel ways. The difference for us who follow the Shepherd is that over and over again God promises that He is with us and will not let us be destroyed in any way that matters. “I will strengthen you and help you; I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.” (Isaiah 41:10)….”“Can a mother forget the baby at her breast and have no compassion on the child she has borne? Though she may forget, I will not forget you! See, I have engraved you on the palms of my hands…” (Isaiah 49:15-16)….”Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid or terrified…for the Lord your God goes with you; He will never leave you nor forsake you.” (Deuteronomy 31:6)

Francis Thompson’s classic poem The Hound of Heaven echoes the shepherd’s simple psalm, the way he pictures God chasing him relentlessly through all the days of his life, Love never giving up until his soul gives up running, and is Home and safe. It is both a comforting and a terrifying picture, depending on where you are, perhaps. And I have seen that God does not only run after the fleeing, and the wandering, but He also runs after the weak and faltering. “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me”— chasing me, pursuing me, hunting me– “all the days of my life,” because I belong to the Good Shepherd and He does not give up on any of His sheep, ever.

So on days when I can’t see anything clearly through the wind and the storm, if all I have is the faintest whisper… “find me”…that is enough of a prayer, because the One who leads me on, who is the Beginning and the End of all things, will also never stop following close behind with His wild Goodness.

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“When I said, ‘My foot is slipping,’ your unfailing love, Lord, supported me.
 When anxiety was great within me, Your consolation brought me joy.” (Psalm 94:18-19)

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“All which I took from thee, I did’st but take,
Not for thy harms,
But just that thou might’st seek it in my arms.
All which thy child’s mistake fancies as lost,
I have stored for thee at Home.” (The Hound of Heaven, Francis Thompson)

Follow the Leader

I don’t know about you, but my emotions are usually the first to respond to a situation, and the last to catch on to what is actually true.  That’s why it’s best not to let them lead.

Modern society would argue that point loudly, thanks to the very successful efforts of the psychology movement in the last sixty to seventy years, which convinced almost everyone that in order to find truth and meaning in this world we needed to look deep inside ourselves.  Consequently, individual experiences and emotions and perspectives were elevated to new heights, and even Christian thinking took on a Self-tinged, relativistic hue. Life is deeper and richer because of our emotions, and it seems only natural to follow where those powerful tides pull us, right?

But a long time ago a wise man told me that doing the right thing depends on choosing to do it, regardless of how you feel. Let reason and faith inform your will, and let will bend in surrender to God, and the emotions will trail along behind until they gradually fall in line. (Unfortunately, he neglected to mention how fiercely said emotions would make themselves known….or what a battle it would be to consistently choose what is right against the tide of feeling….and how wearing a mask to show the right things on the outside is not the same thing as truly choosing…but that is another story altogether.) He was correct at the root of it all. You have to know what voices to listen to, know what can lead you well, if you want a good outcome. The Wise King agrees that “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and knowledge of the Holy One is understanding.” (Proverbs 9:10) It’s reverence and knowledge of God that lead us to wisdom.

My feelings about a thing do not determine whether it is right or wrong…or even if it is real. My feelings are not the best informant on the value of something, or the wisdom or health of a decision. Feelings are just one more faculty of being, given by the Creator so I could have relationship with Him and with the people around me. Feelings are an important part of who He made me to be, but like every other part, need to be re-shaped day by day by His Spirit living in me. I know that things never end well when unchecked emotions are leading the way. No matter what I am feeling, I find that choosing to give thanks reminds me where to look– which direction I am heading– as if gratitude were a compass on this Faith-journey. .And it’s always remarkable how when you are lost in a sea of emotions, it is trusting God and accepting what He gives you that brings clarity to thinking, and orders your world.  A sister-mentor reminds “No one receives the peace of God without giving thanks to God.” (Ann VosKamp)

The patterns of this world might call for us to follow our hearts, no matter in what winding ways they lead. But Jesus is calling us to take up our cross and follow Him, and His is the narrow way that leads us straight Home.

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“Don’t worry about anything; instead, pray about everything. Tell God what you need, and thank him for all he has done. Then you will experience God’s peace, which exceeds anything we can understand. His peace will guard your hearts and minds as you live in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 4:6-7)

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“Even when my strength is lost,
I’ll praise You.
Even when I have no song,
I’ll praise You.
Even when it’s hard to find the words–
Louder then I’ll sing Your praise…
I will only sing Your praise….

And my heart burns only for You–
You are all, You are all I want,
And my soul waits only for You;
And I will sing till the morning has come.”

(Even When It Hurts, Hillsong United)